“Seventy-five percent of marriages in North America are blessed by a pastor, priest or rabbi,” Mike McMannue, a nationally syndicated columnist and former Time correspondent, notes in his book. Marriage Savers. Therefore “the church bears a tremendous responsibility in preparing couples not for weddings which last a day, but for marriage which lasts a lifetime.”
About fifteen years ago, clergy and counselors became discouraged dealing with marriages on the rocks, counseling virtually hopeless cases. Often the pastor was the last to find out that a marriage was in trouble and so any help offered was crisis-oriented and remedial.
“In the last decade the model has shifted dramatically from crisis/remedial marriage counseling to preventive measures of marriage preparation and enrichment,” says Dr. William McCrae, Chancellor of Ontario Bible College and Ontario Theological Seminary. McCrae and his wife Marilyn, cross Canada offering a popular seminar, “Making a Good Thing Better” (416-226-6380).
Marriage preparation and enrichment courses alert couples to the predictable stresses all marriages go through. The first typical stress is the birth of the first child, the last, the departure of the last child from the home. Such courses also offer relationship inventories which expose potential areas of difference and conflict. “The more realistic you are in your expectations, the less stress and strain in the first two years of your marriage” says McCrae.
Today in Ontario a couple is able to marry within an hour of a marriage licence being issued. But various churches are putting on the brakes to allow time for marriage preparation counseling. A 16-hour marriage preparation course is mandatory in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. In the Anglican Archdiocese of Toronto, “some counseling is mandatory” and no priest can marry a couple “within the first sixty days of inquiry.”
Much of the counseling across the denominations, is being done by religious leaders working alongside a specially trained married couple. And the better programmes include not only detailed questionnaires or inventories, but also some follow-up counseling after the marriage. Highly acclaimed programmes, such as Marriage Encounter and Retrouvaille, which originated in the Catholic community, are open to couples of other faiths, and are being adapted by other denominations for their people.
Nor do priests and rabbis allow a couple to simply use the church or synagogue as a stage set for their wedding. When a couple enquires whether they can be married in Toronto’s historic Little Trinity Anglican Church, Rev. Duke Vippermann uses the opportunity to say, “We have found that couples who are active in the body and life of the church have a better chance of staying together. Why don’t you come an try us?” He notes that other churches may have the same policy of requiring couples to attend services but “don’t always use it as an evangelical strategy and simply rebuff the couple.”
Good courses cover a wide range of topics including: readiness for marriage, emotional maturity, family of origin and its relation to expectations, psychological differences between the sexes, time and money management, spousal love and responsible parenthood.
The 16-hour mandatory Catholic Marriage Preparation Course can be divided into various packages: 6 to 8 weeks one night a week, or two weekends, Friday night and all day Saturday or one full weekend including Sunday (called Engaged Encounter). Instruction is given by a priest and a married couple. Courses are offered in a dozen languages, including for the deaf and the hearing impaired. (416-977-1500 ext.151 in Toronto).
FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study) is a Catholic questionnaire designed to raise issues that a couple should discuss before marriage. Each person completes the inventory separately. Completing FOCCUS as part of a marriage preparation course is totally voluntary although highly recommended. For many couples, the results will be an affirmation of their decision to marry. For other couples, the results of FOCCUS, by themselves, should not jeopardize their right to marry and the results are confidential.
Marriage is again addressed during the Catholic Church’s Preparation for Baptism, since children, for all their joy, add a new stress and challenge to the marriage. There is also Marriage Enrichment, which is parish-based, to enrich existing marriages. It lasts four weeks and aims to improve communication skills and to help couples become aware of the community support available.
Marriage Encounter is for good marriages: for those with good dialogue to deepen it, for those with poor dialogue to improve it, for those with no dialogue who are willing to be open to this particular method as a means of restoring or reawakening their love and communication. Newly married or couples married over 50 years have made encounters. The weekend is given by a team of two married couples and a priest to a group of married couples. After each presentation there is a period for personal reflection and finally spousal dialogue.
Marriage Encounter is not a sensitivity group. There is no group dialogue or group dynamics. There is no manipulation by the team couples. It is not a time to go over mistakes of the past. Things discussed are important to the moment. What you learn is applicable to everyday life.
Marriage Encounter is a Christian movement open to people of all faiths. A free will offering is accepted.
Many churches use the Prepare/enrich series (403) 973-3650 which also has a Married with Children version. It includes a series of inventories or questionnaires which allow the pastor or mentoring couple to zero in quickly on problem or “growth” areas. Prepare/Enrich has useful material for training mentors and can be used at a very local level by lay people. Its format allows it to be adapted to any denomination.
While a marriage preparation course is not mandatory in the Pentecostal church it is strongly recommended. Al Saunders, National Director of Adult Ministries for the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, recommends that a trained mentoring couple be assigned to a newly- engaged couple in the church. The mentors have the engaged couple over for dinner once a month and share with them their own struggles. The mentors would attend marriage seminars with the young couple and after the wedding still meet with them bimonthly for a year.
Retrovaille is a program designed to help heal and renew troubled marriages. The word means rediscovery. If your marriage has become unloving and uncaring or if your relationship has grown cold and distant, if there is little or no meaningful communication, or if you feel disappointment even despair, Retrovaille is recommended. If you are thinking of separation or divorce or you are already separated, but want to try again, call Retrovaille. Although Retrovaille is a Catholic programme, it welcomes couples of other faiths.
The programme consists of a weekend and several follow-up sessions. A series of in-depth presentations are given to a group of couples by one of three married couples and a priest, focusing on a specific area of marital relationship. After each presentation, you will have a chance to reflect on it yourself, then discuss it with your spouse in complete privacy.
The weekend is not a sensitivity group, nor a seminar, nor is it a social gathering. You will not be asked to share your problems with anyone else. You will, however, be encouraged to put the past behind you and start rediscovering one another again. The weekend is not a ‘miracle’ cure, so follow-up sessions have been designed to continue the marriage renewal begun on the weekend.
If you wish to remain anonymous when calling for information, you need not identify yourself. If you then wish to register, all names are kept confidential. One anonymous donation covers both the expenses for the weekend and all the follow-up sessions. Call (416) 281-8007.
One of the perennial problems in counseling is getting both partners to come it. Usually it is the men who are reluctant although Saunders says, “Men are becoming more willing to talk.” Saunders says couples with VCRs can take a course in their own home and that men especially like that.
McMannus’ book, Marriage Savers also comes as a kit which includes, along with the book, six videos and a study guide. Marriage Savers covers: preparation for dating, engagement, marriage, reconciliation and divorce prevention. (301) 469-5870.
Saunders also highly recommends two video series by Dr. Richard Dobbins, a Christian psychologist, Growing Together in Marriage for premarriage, and Bonds and Boundaries for enriching a marriage. (216) 867-5603.
Saunders describes as “exceptional” the current secular best-seller, Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars by David Gray. “It’s right on.” Saunders also recommends any book co-authored by Gary Smalley and John Trent, a prolific writing team, but especially, Love is a Decision.
For books from an evangelical perspective, Dr. Rob Wilson of Ontario Bible College, recommends for pastors and mentoring couples, Norman Wright’s Premarital Counselling; and for the engaged couple: A. Florio’s workbook Two to Get Ready, Canadian Bill Rae’s Preparing for Your Marriage, and H. Eyrich’s Three to Get Ready. Larry Crabb’s The Marriage Builder would be suitable for either counselor or couple.
McRae recommends Chuck Swindoll’s Strike the Original Match, Willard F. Harley Jr.’s His Needs, Her Needs and Norman Wright’s Communication: Key to Your Marriage. Wright is a practicing marriage counselor.
If you want a complete break from inventories, workbooks and anecdotes, try Canadian Mike Mason’s emotive The Mystery of Marriage, a deep meditation on the Christian mysteries incarnate in married love. Marriage Spirituality by Paul Stevens examines the spiritual disciplines as they apply to marriage.
Finally Wilson recommends two American academic journals for the minister or counselor that would appeal across the denominational spectrum: Pastoral Psychology and Journal of Family and Marital Therapy.
McRae, like many experts, encourages married couples to go out weekly on a “date”, get away quarterly for a weekend and once a year have a holiday together for a week.